Sport: Oval Digest – Rabo Action Returns With Bigger Fish On The Horizon
Away from all the column inches, selection issues and pressure focused on the Autumn Internationals, Ireland’s four provinces returned to Rabo Pro 12 action at the weekend, with the inclusion of many international stars.
The week before a Heineken double header is generally always about getting game time for key positions, showing as little set piece moves away as possible, and overcoming your opponent without injuries, and three of our four sides will be happy with their weekend’s work.
LEINSTER, who face the might of Clermont in a season deciding double header this December, welcomed Italian minnows Zebre to the R.D.S. on Saturday night. Starting with Gordon D’arcy in the unfamiliar role of 13 and NZ import Andrew Goodman at 12, Leinster looked shaky to begin with. Zebre made early ground with some powerful forward grunt, though faded spectacularly around the 20 minute mark. Truthfully, Leinster never looked back after that, with a controlling 40-minute display from Sexton the highlight of the night. Both Sexton and returning Carlow loosie Sean O’Brien were removed at half time, both as a precaution, though this led to little in the way of difficulty. Fergus McFadden was the star of the evening, slotting penalties and finishing two tries, while the four try bonus will be welcome, given the home side’s mixed Rabo form so far.
As mentioned, Leinster face their old foes in the fortress Stade Marcel Michelin next Sunday, a ground where Clermont seldom lose. With the loss of key players like Kearney, Fitzgerald and O’Driscoll, Joe Schmidt will no doubt be happy with a losing bonus point, though expect another titanic battle. Clermont, with a point to prove against the men in blue, should have just about enough this time.
Elsewhere, MUNSTER bounced back from a disappointing loss to Scarlets in Cork last week with a bonus win against a strong looking Glasgow side. It’s nearing the stage now that Munster, traditionally a forward dominated wet weather side, actually prefer a dry ball to release their electric backs, and they again showed the improvement in attacking strategy since the arrival of Rob Penney. Worries for Penney will be his starting 10, with O’Gara again underperforming, though the old head may just win out for a clash with English raiders Saracens on Saturday.
The capture of Saffer back row CJ Stander from Blue Bulls will bolster Munster’s carrying ability in the back row, and the return of Paul O’Connell would be a huge boost on home turf. Munster, despite what the bookies might say, are a poorer team than Sarries on paper, but a freezing Thomond night against a hyped side is the stuff of fairytales. Time for another hurrah maybe?
ULSTER, the most impressive of the provinces this season, fought off fellow league toppers Scarlets in Llanelli on Sunday evening, welcoming back Ireland hero Craig Gilroy in the process. Scarlets were shorn of their Welsh stars due to international commitments, and truthfully little can be read into this result, other than the impressive form of the Northerners coming into a clash with Northampton this weekend.
Ulster are a team on the up with options in many positions, though injury worries might hamper their style in the next two weeks. December is when European dreams are shattered, and the form province will need to be on guard when travelling to Franklin’s Gardens on Friday evening.
The forgotten men of CONNACHT, with an injury crisis that’s easing somewhat, unfortunately fell just short of taking the scalp of Edinburgh in Galway, a late Parks drop goal missing the target. The Westies will get another chance of marking their season against Blanco’s Biarritz giants this Friday, though, unlike Quins last year, the French side are packed with brawn and set piece steel. Expect Connacht to fall just short on a memorable night perhaps.
With more short term commitments taking up the headspace of Irish rugby fans, the draw for the 2015 Rugby World Cup (now just over 1,000 days away!) took place today also. Ireland avoided some tricky third tier opponents to draw France, Italy and two others to be decided, though a likely second place finish will probably mean facing the mighty All Blacks in a Quarter Final.
The group of death is certainly group A. Expect numerous ‘empire’ references in the next three years, as Wales, England and Australia were paired with Fiji in as tough a group as there’s ever been in the tournament.
It’s a long way away yet, but with a forward thinking coach and more young talent coming through, the Irish rugby fan can hope for a good showing across the Irish Sea in 2015. Hopefully we can forecast a good short term outlook also.